A new plan for audits of labor conditions at Walmart’s US distribution centers drew skeptical reactions from labor groups Thursday. According to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the plan on December 28, Walmart’s plan is “similar to” the labor monitoring system the company currently uses for its overseas suppliers in countries such as China and Bangladesh.
“Walmart’s global labor rights monitoring program is a public relations scam put in place to address public relations problems arising from their use of sweatshop labor,” Workers Rights Consortium Executive Director Scott Nova told The Nation. “In that sense, it makes perfect sense that now that they’re facing public relations problems anew around treatment of workers in their domestic distribution system, that they would choose to apply the same public relations scam to that problem that they’ve applied internationally.” The WRC is an international labor monitoring group whose board is composed of university administrators, labor advocates and students.
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment. In past statements to The Nation, the retail giant has defended conditions in its warehouses, dismissed claims that it is legally responsible for them, and denied that it retaliates against activist workers. According to Journal reporter Shelly Banjo, the new plan “includes unannounced visits of all third-party operated warehouses by independent auditors.” Banjo wrote that the plan, which has not been formally announced, was confirmed by Walmart spokesperson Dan Fogleman, who told her, “We take this seriously.”
Walmart’s new auditing system follows a wave of pressure in recent months from sub-contracted workers in its US distribution centers. As The Nation has reported, this has included lawsuits aiming to hold Walmart legally responsible for those facilities’ conditions, and repeated strikes in response to alleged retaliation. In October, a senior Walmart official met with a few workers active in the labor group Warehouse Workers United, a project of the Change to Win union federation.
David Garcia, a WWU activist who was fired from his job at a Walmart distribution center in California, said the Journal report “kind of shocked me.” Garcia told The Nation he was disturbed to hear that Walmart could use its international monitoring approach as a model for its domestic warehouses, less than two months after 112 workers died in a fire at a Bangladesh factory that supplied Walmart apparel.
Warehouse Workers United Director Nick Allen said the group would “reserve judgment” pending the details of Walmart’s new plan, but that reports that the new system would be similar to the one used abroad are “not at all reassuring.” That system, charged Allen, “led directly to the deaths of 112 people in Bangladesh.”
As The Nation has reported, Walmart has said it had cut off that Bangladeshi factory prior to fire, and blamed the presence of its goods there on a rogue supplier; critics have blamed the tragedy on Walmart’s relentless squeeze on supplier labor costs, and its veto of a proposal for retailers to fund safety improvements.